Specialty courts working but need more funding
Supreme Court Justice Michael Douglas said Tuesday the extra money lawmakers pumped into Nevada’s specialty courts in the 2015 session has enabled “extraordinary progress” in providing services to those clients.
Lawmakers provided $3 million a year to expand the courts that deal with drug addicts, the mentally ill, felony DUI cases and veterans who run into legal trouble plus $1.4 million to make up for the shortfall in fee income resulting from the recession.
Douglas urged the Commission on the Administration of Justice to back efforts to get the 2017 Legislature to continue to expand that funding.
The goal of those specialty courts is to divert and treat those with mental health, drug and other problems to change their lifestyle and keep them out of prison.
The result is a significant overall financial savings for the state from reducing the inmate population, Douglas said.
But Douglas said they have been running those courts — about 70 of them statewide — “on a shoestring.” He said there are costs associated with those courts that just aren’t covered by the existing budget, including the use of court personnel.
“We are going to have to sit down with the Legislature to talk about the actual cost of the program,” said Douglas. “What we thought was simple became more complicated because of the reality of this.”
Justice Jim Hardesty, who chairs the commission, said when lawmakers approved the funding in 2015, “there was a limitation on its use.” He said it was dedicated to expanding participation for direct provider services, not for those other costs.
Nevada’s courts have been suffering funding shortages for several years because they get a large percentage of funding from the administrative assessments that are added primarily to fines imposed for such things as traffic violations. Those revenues have been steadily declining, coming in significantly below projections used to build the court system’s budgets. The other sources of funding, Douglas said, include such things as block grant funding from the federal government which he said has “dried up.”
But he and David Barker, Clark County chief district judge, said those specialty courts have proven tremendously successful in keeping drug addicts and those with mental health problems out of prison, saving significant amounts of money, and returning those people to productive members of society.
James Dzurenda, director of the Nevada Department of Corrections, said he’s a strong supporter of those specialty courts as well.
“I would love to be able to reduce my population,” he said, a reference to the fact NDOC has significantly more inmates that it was budgeted for this cycle.
He said he would be willing to discuss moving some Second Chance grants and other money to help support those courts and keep people out of prison.
The Commission on Administration of Justice will meet again October 12 to make recommendations for legislative and other changes to the Legislature.